"The Trojan Prince" by Tessa Hadley Originally published in the November 15, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m finally catching up with my reading of these stories, and I’m glad to say that “The Trojan Prince” made it a pleasure. I’ve been intrigued with Tessa Hadley’s stories in The New Yorker, but where I always felt only s0-so with her previous ones, I quite liked this one about James McIlvanney (sixteen), his cousin Ellen Pearson (who might be “a useful friend to have”), and her friend Connie Chappell (twenty). It takes place in the 1920s in the UK.
When the story begins, James is standing before the daunting door of Ellen’s house. He himself is only following some unconscious intuition in visiting his wealthier cousin (or second cousin, or thereabouts).
He hasn’t said a word to his mother about coming here.
All he has in mind is that Ellen would be a useful friend to have. He hasn’t followed this through to any idea of paying court to her, or advancing himself in the world that way; he doesn’t like to think about courtship or marrying at all — and he really may be going away to sea at some point soon.
When James is introduced into the home, he is shocked and a bit upset that Connie has been living there. He knows things would work out better without her around.
James has recently set up a potential apprenticeship aboard a cargo ship. As an excuse for visiting, he says he came to say goodbye. And this is how the story begins. In these last days of his youth, James spends a lot of time with Connie and Ellen.
It’s the same each time: although the visits to the Pearson house are his own idea, he feels the girls are drawing him there, as though he were under their spell.
He goes about with one on each arm, imagining “that the girls are water swirling around him.” It’s a very nice portrait of a rather carefree time. World War I has ended, and anything seems possible. Hadley is very skilled at placing subtle sexual tension (anything sexual repulses James — at least, that’s what he thinks in his innocence), and this little triangle is well set up to explore a wide variety of themes while staying focused on an interesting story.